Published in Education: journal of the N.S.W. Public School Teachers Federation, Vol. 61, No. 2, 11 February 1980, p. 36.
Open your newspapers any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable able to his or her government. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.
Early in 1961, a British lawyer named Peter Benenson read in his morning paper of two students who had been arrested in a restaurant and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for raising their glasses to a toast for freedom. Indignant, Mr. Benenson’s first reaction was to go to the Portuguese Embassy in London and protest personally, but he realized that such an individual gesture would accomplish little for the students themselves. Government repression of dissent was a problem that had long troubled Mr. Benenson. During the 1950s he had attended political trials in Hungary, Cyprus, South Africa and Spain, either as a legal observer or as defence counsel. He had also written and broadcast widely about the problem. Now he began to wonder how oppressive regimes might react to concerted worldwide protests to acts of political injustice, rather than to the individual protest he had contemplated in the case of the Portuguese students. Gradually he conceived the idea of a one-year international campaign to draw world attention to the plight of persons detained throughout the world — under all political systems for the peaceful expression of their political or religious opinions. In 1961 Mr. Benenson founded Amnesty International.
Amnesty International national has grown from a small band of well-meaning volunteers to an international organization with 220,000 members. Many of these members are trade unionists a reflection of the concern that unionists have for the violation of liberty throughout the world. Frequently the first arrested by a despotic government are trade unionists and workers. It is therefore appropriate that some of the strongest branches of Amnesty international have been formed by trade unionists.
On November 30, 1979 a NSW trade unionists’ branch of Amnesty International was established. The convener is Mr. John Ward, Secretary of the Foremen and Supervisors Association and the Secretary of the Amnesty International Group is Mr. Michael Easson, Education Officer, Labor Council of NSW. The objectives of Amnesty International will guide the activities of the Trade Union Group.
Briefly, Amnesty International’s aims and activities can be summarized:
• as a worldwide human rights movement which is independent of any government, political faction, ideology, economic interest or religious creed, it works for the release of men and women imprisoned anywhere for their beliefs, colour, ethnic origin or religion, provided they have neither used nor advocated violence. These are termed “prisoners of conscience”.
• opposes torture and capital punishment in all cases and without reservation. It advocates fair and early trials for all political prisoners and works on behalf of persons detained without charge or without trial and those detained after expiry of their sentences.
• seeks observance throughout the world of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Standard Minimum mum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
• has 1650 adoption groups and national sections in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South America and individual members in 74 countries. Each adoption group works for three prisoners of conscience in countries other than its own. The three countries are balanced geographically and politically to ensure impartiality. Information about prisoners and human rights violations emanates from Amnesty International’s Research Department in London. Australian Trade Unions are able to “adopt” fellow-workers imprisoned in other countries so as to work for their release.
• has consultative status with the United Nations (ECOSOC) and the Council of Europe, has co-operative relations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, is recognized by UNESCO, and has observer status with the Organization of African Unity (Bureau for the Placement and Education of African Refugees).
• is financed by its national sections throughout the world, by individual subscriptions and by donations. Its income and expenditure are published annually.
The objectives of the NSW Trade Unionists branch of Amnesty International national will be to concentrate on a campaign for the release of trade unionists and workers throughout the world. For further information, please write to Mr. Michael Easson, Secretary, NSW Trade Unionists Group of Amnesty International, Labor Council, 10th Floor, 377 Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW 2000.
I scanned reports of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations on international examples of suppression of trade unions and trade unionists.
Only by particularising the situation, referring to real people, could I and others imagine rousing unionists and others to letter-write and protest.
It might not be much, but better than nothing.